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Dwayne Thorpe

Other Philadelphia CIU Exonerations
At 11 a.m. on July 4, 2008, 30-year-old Hamin Span and his younger brother, Nyfeese Robinson, were walking to a Family Dollar store on Frankford Avenue in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to buy materials to set up a tent for an Independence Day celebration.

As they walked, a thin black male—about 18 years old, and wearing a dark baseball cap with the brim pulled low—rode up on a bicycle and engaged in a brief verbal argument with Span. The youth then took his bike and went into a house at 3045 Frankford Avenue. When Span and Robinson walked back from the store and passed the house, they saw the youth as well as another male sitting on the steps of the house. Span and the youths exchanged words, and then Span and Robinson continued walking back to the 2000 block of Elkhart Street where the celebration was going to be held.

Robinson later said that they stopped at the corner of Elkhart and Frankford while Span made a call on his cell phone. As they stood there, the same youth came riding toward them on his bike, then stopped and jumped off. With his right hand, he pulled a handgun from under his shirt and fired several shots as Robinson and Span fled. Robinson escaped unscathed. Span was shot, but he managed to get to the front door of his residence where he collapsed and died.

Later that evening, police executed a search warrant at 3045 Frankford Avenue and recovered a quantity of marijuana and cocaine as well as a handgun. They also found a photograph of two black males—one of whom was 25-year-old Dwayne Thorpe. In searching the residence, police also learned the name of Allan Chamberlain, who was the property owner’s boyfriend.

Philadelphia police detective James Pitts interviewed Chamberlain on July 9, and reported that Chamberlain had given a statement implicating Thorpe. The statement said that Chamberlain was in the house on Frankford when Thorpe said that he had been in argument with someone from the neighborhood concerning his sale of drugs, and that he would use a gun to take care of the person so that he could continue his drug-dealing business.

That same day, detective Pitts showed an eight-person photographic array to Robinson who identified Thorpe as the gunman.

On September 2, 2008, police arrested Thorpe after he turned himself in. He was charged with first-degree murder, attempted murder, and illegal use of a firearm.

In December 2009, Thorpe went to trial in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas. Robinson testified and identified Thorpe as the gunman. He said that when they were returning from the Family Dollar and saw Thorpe and another male on the steps at 3045 Frankford Avenue, Span said, “What’s up with your young boy? Like your young boy is being disrespectful.”

Robinson said Thorpe responded, “I’m not no—I ain’t no little boy. I’m a grown man. I’m 25 years old. Before anybody (gets) out of line with me, I’m gonna lay them out.”

Robinson told the jury that as Span was talking on his cell phone, Thorpe rode up, jumped off the bike, and began shooting.

Chamberlain took the witness stand and said the statement taken by Pitts was false. He said Pitts drew up a statement quoting Chamberlain as saying he heard Thorpe say he was going to use his gun to take care of someone in order to protect his drug business. Chamberlain said he signed the statement after Pitts threatened to charge him with the murder, threatened to take away his son, and then punched him in the face and abdomen.

The prosecution then called Pitts, who denied mistreating or threatening Chamberlain. Pitts then read the statement to the jury. He also interjected that during the search, police recovered cocaine, marijuana, and a gun. Thorpe’s defense attorney failed to object even though the drugs and gun were not linked in any way to Thorpe or the murder.

John Bytheway, a neighbor of Span, testified that on July 3, the day before the shooting, a youth about 18 or 19 rode up the street on a bike while Bytheway and Span were talking. As the youth rode by, Bytheway said he heard him say, “This will be easy.” When Span responded, “Let’s do it now,” the youth said, “No, I’ll be back later.” Bytheway was unable to identify the youth on the bike.

Thorpe’s defense attorney called four witnesses—Thorpe’s aunt and uncle, his grandmother, and his grandmother’s neighbor—all of whom testified that Thorpe was with them all morning and until 1 p.m. They were hosting a block party at the Thorpe residence more than three miles from where Span was shot.

On December 17, 2009, the jury convicted Thorpe of first-degree murder, attempted murder, and illegal use of a weapon. He was sentenced to life in prison.

On November 6, 2013, the Philadelphia Daily News published a lengthy article that revealed how three murder prosecutions handled by detective Pitts had collapsed amidst accusations that he had coerced false statements from witnesses through threats and physical violence.

On November 15, nine days later, the Pennsylvania Superior Court upheld Thorpe’s convictions. Thorpe then retained attorney Todd Mosser, who in 2015 filed a petition for a new trial under the Post-Conviction Relief Act. The petition alleged that Pitts had framed Thorpe through the coerced statement of Chamberlain and the use of a highly suggestive photo array. All of the eight people in the array were, like Thorpe, in their 20s even though the description of the gunman was of an 18-year-old. The backgrounds of all the fillers were darker than the background in Thorpe’s photo. And all of the fillers were dark-skinned black men while Thorpe was a light-skinned black man.

In August 2016, Judge M. Teresa Sarmina granted a hearing on the petition to hear evidence on Thorpe’s claims that his trial defense lawyer had provided an inadequate legal defense by failing to object to Pitts’s testimony about the recovery of drugs and a gun, by failing to object and ask for a mistrial after Pitts testified improperly that Thorpe had a prior arrest record, and by failing to show that Thorpe was left-handed while the gunman shot with his right hand. In addition, Judge Sarmina said the defense could present evidence relating to Pitts’ reputation for coercing false statements from witnesses.

The hearing lasted four days during June 2017. Mosser presented testimony from 10 witnesses who detailed how Pitts extracted false statements from them. One woman said she was handcuffed to a chair for two days in the police station, while Pitts threatened to charge her with murder and refused her requests to speak to a lawyer or family members. Finally, she testified, Pitts typed up a statement saying what he wanted her to say and she signed it.

A man testified that when he said he knew nothing about a crime that Pitts was investigating, Pitts threatened to send him to the hospital and then punched him in the face. The man said he finally agreed to give a false statement after Pitts pulled his chair up close to him and ground his knee into the man’s penis for 20 minutes while asking questions.

Another witness said he was 18, had a third- or fourth-grade reading level, and had been diagnosed as having bipolar-schizophrenic and fetal alcohol syndrome when Pitts brought him in for questioning about a murder he knew nothing about. The witness said Pitts accused him of the murder and slapped him in the mouth. Pitts then left the room and returned with a typed statement. He then told the youth he could go home if he signed it. After he signed the statement—which he could not read—the youth was arrested. The statement said the victim was Marquel Bradley—a person who did not exist.

A woman said Pitts kept her handcuffed to a chair for three days and called her a “bitch” and a “whore,” threatened to take away her children, said she was going to spend the rest of her life in prison, and claimed that her boyfriend had been shot in the penis.

After the hearing, Mosser filed a post-hearing brief saying, “It strains credulity to accept the notion that all ten witnesses fabricated allegations that in large part are consistent with each other and tell the same story about this detective.”

Mosser noted, “It is an extraordinary thing to illegally coerce one person into giving a statement in the manner that Detective Pitts has done.” Adding Chamberlain’s claim of being coerced to make a false statement to the list, Mosser said, “Eleven confirmed times is simply astounding. This is more than a case of ‘where there is smoke, there is fire.’ There is a blazing five-alarm forest fire here.”

On November 3, 2017, Judge Sarmina vacated Thorpe’s convictions and ordered a new trial. The judge found that Thorpe’s trial defense attorney had provided an inadequate legal defense by failing to object to Pitts’s improper testimony about the gun and drugs seized during the search. The judge also said the evidence had established Pitts’s “habitually coercive conduct towards witnesses in custodial interrogations.” The judge barred the use of Chamberlain’s statement at a retrial.

Four days later, on November 7, 2017, Larry Krasner was elected District Attorney of Philadelphia County. Almost immediately, he expanded the responsibilities of its Conviction Integrity Unit, which then undertook an extensive re-investigation of Thorpe’s case.

On March 27, 2019, upon the recommendation of the Conviction Integrity Unit, the District Attorney’s Office dismissed the charges and Thorpe was released.

In October 2019, Thorpe filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Philadelphia and several police officers, including Pitts, seeking damages for his wrongful conviction.

Pitts was arrested on March 3, 2022, and charged with two counts of perjury and three counts of obstruction tied to his testimony and police work in the case of Obina Onyiah. He was convicted of those charge on July 16, 2024.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 5/16/2019
Last Updated: 7/17/2024
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Attempted Murder, Illegal Use of a Weapon
Reported Crime Date:2008
Age at the date of reported crime:25
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No